Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: My Year in Books


When I try to capture in words the adventures in reading that I had in 2015, I feel flummoxed at where to start. A tally of books read? List by genre? Success/failure of reading challenges? In years pasts, those were my go to places for wrap ups, but I’m not feeling like that’s what this year was about to me. Even a favourites list feels so subjective and personal, I wonder at the value of sharing it. I did decide to do a favourite lists, but before I get to that I thought I would share some learnings that reading brought to me this year.

I feel like I’ve managed a good balance between expanding my reading horizons and enjoyment reading this year. A lot of the books that expanded my horizons were part of either the Those Books Exploration of the 2015 Book to Film Challenge. Among the most challenging were Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick; all of which had challenging content that really hit hard. They also were books I really had to set aside time to read them, which I don’t mind too much although I have learned that I don’t always want to be reading a book that feels like ‘work’. It was good to add them in here and there, but I also need time to follow my nose and dive into enjoyment reading.

One wrench in the works of my reading ended up being of my own devices: The 2015 Book to Film Challenge. Now, I love reading books before they become films and love imagining what the film would look like. This year I picked a wide variety of titles from different genres and time periods, and month by month read them. Mostly. I learned two very important things while doing this challenge: 1) a year is too long a commitment for me as my interest started to wane about halfway through in July and 2) I am generally *not* a fan of historically set books. It’s just not really my thing. Therefore some of the titles that are now films people are really keen on (I’m looking at you Brooklyn), didn’t really do much for me. Written-in-their-own-time-which-is-now-a-long-time-ago books faired a big better, like Black Beauty and The Price of Salt, but they weren’t at the top of my list by far.

I’m a “genre” fan, as film folk say. The closer to science fiction and fantasy it is, the more likely I will like it. I only realized that after noticing that I scored The Martian by Andy Weir and Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang well above and beyond the other books. That being said, my absolute favourite was Frankenstein. The annoying thing about all of this is that I don’t think I would have understood Frankenstein as well as I did if I hadn’t pushed my reading boundaries with other titles earlier in the year. I guess that lends more to the balance and/or variety makes for a good overall reading experience.

In terms of enjoyment reading, I would have to link that very closely to one of my other goals of the year which was to try out a book club. The one I picked was the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club hosted by Felicia Day, Veronica Belmont, Bonnie Burton and Kiala Kazebee. They read romance novels from all different subgenres from scifi/fantasy to paranormal to fae to historical, and have a Google Hangout to discuss it every month. I have had a blast reading the books, checking out the forums and watching the hangouts, plus because they have been doing this for a few years there is a huge back catalogue of books to check out. I’ve blasted through many a series while playing along, and even if I don’t love the book it’s always fun to watch the hangout (Spymaster’s Lady was particularly fun). This book club is also responsible for my favourite reading experience of 2015: the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I have not love a series with such intensity for many, many years.

I also dove into a fair amount of non-fiction books this year, and two really stand out for me. The first is How to Be Sick: A Buddhist -Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard, which came to me at the perfect time. I loved how at the heart of it really stayed centred on the truth of chronic illness being chronic but also held on to the importance of compassion for everyone. It impacted me for the better, and I think of the sentiment of the messages from the book often and try to bring them to my everyday life. The second non-fiction book that stood out for me was Felicia Day’s memoir You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). I loved so much about this book, from her honesty to her awkwardness, to working towards creating something amazing even where there is no roadmap. I loved her stories of her life, and loved hearing about fan encounters and was so impressed by her being extremely supportive of her fans creativity. She’s one classy lady.

In a meta layer of the ‘how’ of reading and books this year, I did venture into the world of Kindle. It isn’t my first foray into the world of ereaders as I bought a Kobo several years ago and love it, especially as it is how I can read ebooks from the library. But after the ease of using the Kindle App on my phone, I started to play with the idea of getting one so when Kindles went on sale in the summer I dove in and got one. And I love it. I love my Kindle. I love how easy it is to both buy new titles and to access free stuff too. Plus, I was finally able to read my brother Jason’s book Blood and Sawdust! Huzzah! I still enjoy physical books, especially flipping through them, seeing them stacked physically on the shelf and the ease of sharing them, but I find myself more and more relishing the ease of ebooks. In particular, reading ebooks is much easier on my hands and on my body, and it’s hard to argue against that. I don’t love the truth of it, but the reality of it feels quite clear. I don’t think I’m going to switch altogether to ebooks, but I’ll see how things go in terms of what works for me via paper and what works via ebooks. Getting to read the book is the most important part, and I knew this was true especially after getting back to reading War and Peace once I repurchased it on Kindle.

That is how my year felt in books. The highlights, the learnings and the big moments. But as mentioned at the beginning, I will also share my favourites of the year because that is another awesome way to remember the year that was.

Favourite Books Read in 2015
In (mostly) chronological order

Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach
This science fiction set action/romance novel was one of the first ones I read for the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club, and I absolutely adored it. Kick ass protagonist, spaceships, other worlds, crazy ideas and an interesting monarchy to boot.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
A classic children’s science fiction/fantasy novel that is definitely one from the “I can’t believe I’ve never read that!” list. I don’t actually have that list. Maybe I’ll make it next year. Anyhow, this was wonderful and whimsical, but not entirely light hearted. I love reading older kids books where the kids are pretty tough in a real feel way. This one also follows siblings, and those are often stories that speak to me, and this one certainly did.

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist -Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard
I’ve already discussed this one above, but it’s been hands down the most helpful book to me this year. If you have chronic illness or know anyone that does, I highly recommend reading it. It has a wonderful combination of a realism of chronic conditions and compassion for anyone it affects, including yourself.

The Martian by Andy Weir
This is definitely a big title this year, with the great film adaptation by Ridley Scott that hit theatres in the fall. It’s actually one of the few book to film titles I got out to see, and I was impressed with the adaptation. I was also really glad I read it before the film came out, or even most of the marketing. It can get very science-y at times, and made me wonder about where the line between and science and science fiction is.

Between Two Seas by Marie-Louise Jensen
A beautifully written historical novel about a young girl who is thrown against the odds of the world, and she has the courage to muster forth with little to no support. A great coming of age and coming into one’s own book.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Classic noir/thriller that captured time and place and tone with expertise. I rarely have read anything where I got the vibe of the room and the moment quite so well. That being said, I hesitated to include it as it is a mystery and I couldn’t figure out whodunit. But, that is often the case with me and mysteries so I didn’t sweat it. I enjoyed the book enough that I found in the end, the end wasn’t the be-all end-all for me. That’s quite a personal revelation!

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
This one I am including even though it was much different than I expected, and I did have some challenges with it but mostly of the “I hope that was more common or okay during the time in which it was written” variety. This one is more of a compilation of short stories than a full on narrative, but I actually loved that. A lot of the stories are those represented in the animated film The Jungle Book, which looks like the same story for the upcoming film and that is full of amazing characters and moments. I am really looking forward to the film. But, there were also lots more stories to enjoy as well, and some of those really stuck with me. Reading The Jungle Book also have me a lightbulb moment of realizing I love stories about animals, and for that I will always treasure it.

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
This was probably the most intelligent and intense 56 pages I read all year. I had to look up numerous scientific terms and wrap my head around theories I had never heard of, and I loved it. It’s a science fiction story that is centred on attempting to communicate with aliens, and I never really quite understood how complex communication even was until I read this. It’s brilliant, thoughtful and emotional to boot. A true find.

H.P. Lovecraft Stories
I’m working my way through the Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft which is a collection of all this short stories 1917 – 1935 (available for free here). I decided to do this because I haven’t ever read any Lovecraft but know if it as it’s often reference in a lot of the TV shows and films I watch, so why not go to the source? My original goal to finish it this year, but then I realized that plowing my way through the stories wasn’t a great idea as so many of them have similar themes and I enjoyed them better if I had some buffer time between works. My favorites of the ones I read this year are : The Cats of Ulthar, The White Ship, Celepha├»s and From Beyond.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, so much so that I would put it down so I could enjoy it for a longer period of time. Felicia Day is awesome. I remember first seeing her in The Guild, which one of my gaming buddies mentioned to me and I was all like “WOW. We are actually something from a girl gamer perspective! Sweet!”. It was so cool to read about how The Guild came to be, but I found it just as interesting to hear stories about her childhood and from the present. She is also very honest about how hard things can be, and both the rewards and pitfalls of striving all out to achieve your goals. I found her incredibly inspiring, especially as a creative force and as a gamer, and on top of all that she’s so supportive of her fans and their creativity. I already said this above, but I’m happy to say it again: she is one classy lady.

Most-Favourite: Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews
I stumbled into this series when I randomly picked the first one to read while looking through the back catalogue of titles in the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club, and I feel in love with the series hard and fast. It’s set in a world where both magic and technology exist and it follows protagonist Kate Daniels, who kicks butt big time. It’s got a long arc story that has epic hero story written all over it, plus there are lots of amazing characters along the way. One of the things I love about it is that the characters are complex, and they actually develop and change over time. No one-phrase description used over and over, these are characters that live and breathe and grow and change in the world created by the authors. It’s the only current series I’m reading that I’ll read anything and everything I can get my hands on, and the supplementary stories have been awesome. It’s in my top 3 favourites series of all time, and I didn’t think anything would ever crack that list. I can’t wait to read more.

Best Book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
Frankenstein was a huge highlight of the year for me. I don’t have the best track record for reading or enjoying classics, so when I started Frankenstein and immediately understood it I felt a huge sense of relief. After the relief settled, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the writing which is so elegant. I was very surprized at how different it was from story point of view from what I was expecting. I’ve seen many adaptations, but almost none capture what felt like the true essence of the book. Reading it felt like both a big achievement and beautiful reward.

Where I Am Now
Of course there are some books that get away, and this year I’m trying not to hold on so tightly to what I wasn’t able to do but there is one that will travel with me into 2016: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I started this in the summer as a buddy read and have gotten more dedicated this past month, but even with very concentrated effort it wasn’t possible to get it read by the end of the year. I’m feeling okay about that, as I’m about 75% and feel confident I will finish it soon. Most importantly, I’m enjoying it, and I’m not trading that for rushing to finish it.

I hope you had an awesome reading year in 2016!

Happy Reading!

Shannon

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